“Ich weiss . . .”: The Certainties of Zarah Leander

“Es ist unmöglich, von Edgar Wallace nicht gefesselt zu sein,” the German translation of a famous publisher’s slogan goes. Never mind the author, whose name, to me, is synonymous with a long series of neogothic film shockers produced in Germany from the late 1950s to the early ‘70s, starring, the enigmatic Klaus Kinski aside, the by then soured crème de la crème of German cinema. It is not the author or the actors but the catchphrase that came to mind today. The original—the assertion that it is “impossible not to be thrilled” by said writer—is decidedly less expressive.

But then, English so often is, compared to the directness of the emotionally charged German language, whose dictionary, largely free from sterilizing Latin, lays meaning bare like a wound bleeding with the memory of deeply felt sensations. “Sehnsucht,” “Weltschmerz,” “Leidenschaft”—I know of no equivalent vehicle in the English lexicon with which to convey quite so forcibly the shattered frame of an agitated mind! The exclamation point, an expedient in punctuation to which I rarely permit myself the resorting, is meant here to imply at once the passion evoked by the German and the frustration of approximating it as my mother tongue sticks itself out at me.

Let us not get tongue-tied. “Gefesselt” loosely translates into “captivated” or, so as not to be loose about what is tight and binding, “tied up” and “enthralled.” What could be more enthralling than the timbre of Zarah Leander? Who could capture longing better than she? Enthralling, yes; but listening to Leander, I can feel rope burn—the sensation of struggling to loosen a restraint. A desire to put a name and voice to my feelings (described in the previous post) compelled me to go in search of her online, the internet being a lifeline for those who, like me, have struggled and failed to sever their ties from the culture into which they were born.

Leander, of course, was a leading lady in Third Reich cinema. As such, her voice and image are both riveting and repulsive to me. Like my present wavering and uncertainty, the figure of Zarah Leander, spellbinding as it may be, spells ambiguity and contradiction. To begin with, Leander was not German; she had Jewish ancestry; a homosexual friend wrote some of her best-known songs. And yet, she was in the service of fascism, implicated in song, as the jolly crowd of Nazis listening and swaying to one of her signature tunes, “Davon geht die Welt nicht unter” in this clip from Die Grosse Liebe (1942) drive home.

Knowing this, I still feel like the blond boy sitting by her side as she teases him that he could not possibly know the most basic sensations—the smell of hazelnuts or an icy wind against one’s cheeks (a song performed, no less, in in a film by the man who would be Douglas Sirk). Wrapped up in her presence, “Schatten der Vergangenheit” (shadows of the past) are crowding in on me.

Zarah Leander is telling me more about myself than I have had the guts to digest at times. By the 1970s, she had become a queer icon, appropriated by the crowd that the regime she tacitly endorsed used to send off to the camps. “Kann denn Liebe Sünde sein?” (Yet can love be sin?) she famously sang, which became—or indeed was conceived as—a song of gay longing. I did not want to be reminded of that liberation, either. In the confusion of a childhood spent in the awareness that I would be unlike the men who desire women sexually, there was no assurance in the taking possession of her in the name of the love then thought of as having to remain unnamed.

Tonight, Leander’s performances are strangely reaffirming. There is “something understood” in her voice, in the lyrics and their delivery. She knows, her character claims in this song, of a future miracle (“Ich weiss, es wird einmal ein Wunder geschehn”), in her voice a conviction her tears seem to belie. I have no need of miracles. Instead, I glory in the wonder of feeling intensely, of being alive to my conflicting emotions, my fears and longings. Recognizing those feelings, I suddenly know myself again . . .

2 Replies to ““Ich weiss . . .”: The Certainties of Zarah Leander”

  1. Some time back, my word-of-the-day, emailed me by Merriam-Webster Online, was \”Weltschmerz\”; I fell instantly in love with it. Now this is an emotional state, I thought, of which I have intimate knowledge. English seems, to me, to be more evocative or picturesque in the combining of words than in individual nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. My mother, a true Anglophile, found and used, I must say, though, some vivid beauties, all of which comprising more than four letters. Most American, that indigent cousin, is, this traitorous Yankee believes, to be avoided.The previously unknown to me Zarah Leander, beautiful and sweet (but not cloyingly so)-voiced, indeed enthralls – and I\’m not much for chanteuses (there you have a sample of my appallingly meagre French), save Ms. Stafford. The videos fascinated. I found the swaying Nazis in the \”Davon geht die Welt nicht unter\” number prickling – but not the faux cacti, before which Frl. Leander stands in the \”Schatten der Vergangenheit\” scene; those I quite liked…. Your power and its impact are undiminished.

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  2. German is so melodramatic, with all feeling coming right to the surface. I love it; but it took a Scottish philosopher to make me realize that. Thomas Carlyle, I mean, who translated Goethe (however poorly) and became known for his Teutonic English known as “Carlylese.” In my own writing, I enjoy combining words to form new expressions, as it was done in Old English. Sorry, I do go on. Thank you for joining me on this excursion. Zarah Leander amazes me; she confronts me with what I loathe and fear about Germany, making me adore her all the same. In not-so-short, she reminds me of my own “Widersprüchlichkeit” (contradictoriness).

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